Literally “character”, but also a nominal form of the verb meaning to exist/be located in time/space. One of the main goals or purposes of life from a traditional Yoruba perspective is to cultivate ìwàpẹlẹ (good/gentle character) that orders one’s life and the world around one well. The various ritual processes and dictates of ancestral, cultural, and sacred traditions (including those of orí and the òrìṣà) help to refine, shape, or cultivate this character. While a person can have bad character (ìwà búburú), this is understood as a type of deficiency or a literal tending towards nothingness as ìwà is linked to existence itself, and the substance of ìwà is assumed to be positive/good. Ìwà as moral substance or character engages in a reciprocal relationship with orí as ìwàpẹlẹ has a positive effect on one’s orí and a good orí can help in the cultivation of ìwàpẹlẹ. Alternatively, a lack of ìwà has a negative effect on one’s orí and vice versa.

Philosophical significance

The concept of ìwà is of critical importance because it demonstrates the malleability of human nature as its positive expression improves human nature, but its lack erodes that very same nature regardless of the quality of one’s orí. Thus, it adds another dynamic layer of complexity to the Yoruba notion of “destiny”. It also dictates the quality and length of one’s life as excellent character (ìwàpẹlẹ) is not only believed to result in long life but can be invoked in artistic representations of ìwà in effigies created to commemorate and immortalize the deceased of high moral substance by localizing their spirit within them. However, those of poor moral substance tend toward nothingness, tend not to be memorialized, and consequently may be unable to become reincarnated. Hence, ìwà not only points to the self’s potential and contingent continuation after earthly death, it is the very means by which each outcome is affected.

Historical Context1

Unlike orí and ẹmí, ìwà has no mythology around it being given to or chosen in heaven. Instead, it is generally anthropomorphized as a woman with whom people may and should cultivate a relationship. In Odù Ogbé-Alárá, Ọrúnmìlà marries Ìwà—sometimes identified as the daughter of Sùúrù (Patience)—and although she is very beautiful, living in such intimacy with her is incredibly trying for him, and he either becomes critical of her or annoyed with her bad behavior. Ìwà then leaves Ọrúnmìlà, and his life becomes even harder without her presence, which prompts him to go to the ends of the earth searching for her. In one version he wins her back by singing a song about how it is impossible to acquire the good things in life without Ìwà. In another she chooses to stay with her father Sùúrù in heaven but promises to aid Ọrúnmìlà invisibly if he exhibits good character toward all people (Abimbola 1975, 395-416).

There are also several well-known proverbs (òwe) related to ìwà that demonstrate its use in Yoruba religion and philosophy. One related to the above narrative is ìwà lẹwà which literally means “(good) character is beauty”. “Beauty” does not necessarily mean something is pleasing or enjoyable, but rather it is the proper and effective expression of the invisible nature, ìwà. Both come from the same root verb “wà”, and the proverb suggests that true character is always “beautiful” or effective/beneficial even if it is not pleasing, just like Ọrúnmìlà’s mythical wife. Another proverb that alludes to the Ifá narrative is sùúrù ni bàbá ìwà (patience is the father/source of character). This proverb clearly indicates that patience is ontologically anterior to and a necessary condition for ìwà and that the presence of patience naturally gives rise to good character. Sùúrù is also mythologized as the first-born of Olódùmarè, which causes this proverb to conceptualize ìwà as a procession from God like ẹmí but less directly.

      Ìwà’s close, dynamic connection with orí is demonstrated by the following proverbs:

Bí orí ba fẹ ìwà            If orí marries ìwà

Bí ìwà ba fẹ orí            If ìwà marries orí

Aiye a gún régé           Life/the world will be well ordered/pleasant

Eni l’orí rere                The owner of a good orí

Ti ò níwà                      Who does not have ìwà

Lo ma borí rẹ jẹ           Will ruin her orí.

Together, these proverbs demonstrate that even with a good orí, one’s character (ìwà) is needed as a consort to ensure that it brings about all the potential good in one’s being or nature. Ìwà’s absence metaphysically degrades one’s destiny (orí) and lessens one’s existence. This perspective is further supported by other common sayings such as kìí ṣènìyàn (he/she/it is not a real person), ènìyàn lásán (barely a human being), or ẹranko ni (he/she/it is an animal) if a person does not exhibit sufficient ìwà to qualify as a full member of society and thus a person.

The goal of life in the traditional Yoruba world is to perfect one’s ìwà or existence and thus become as fully a person as possible, as demonstrated by the proverb Aìkú parí ìwà (immortality is perfect existence/character). The perfect expression of one’s primordial nature (ẹwà) and character (ìwà) in this world naturally shares in ìwà’s timelessness, ensuring a long existence on earth and the perpetuation of the self in the memory of those left behind as a result of the quality of one’s character and actions.

      People who demonstrate excellent ìwàpẹlẹ are known as Ọmọlúwàbí, which is generally translated as ọmọ-ti-Oní-ìwà-bí (child begotten by the Lord of existence/character [Olódùmarè]). This common phrase again ontologically links the central element of ìwà to Olódùmarè and suggests that the more directly the person manifests that character, the better exemplar of existence and humanity she is.

Significant References

Despite its central importance in the translation of a person’s celestial nature and orí into existence in the world, ìwà as a concept has attracted less attention in academic literature than it does in Yoruba tradition. However, Abimbola (1975) analyzes the place of ìwà in Ifá narratives to stress the high moral standards of traditional Yoruba life and religion, and Abiodun (1983 & 2014) analyzes how Yoruba aesthetics convey and materialize a person’s ìwà. O. Ogunnaike (2020) goes the farthest in theorizing the complex reciprocal relationship between orí and ìwà, harmonizing apparently contradicting articulations.

Related Terms:


  • Àṣẹ– Effective existential power or authority. Àṣẹ is the ability to bring and keep anything into existence and is rooted in/given by Olódùmarè and mediated by the òrìṣà Èṣù. Everything that exists has its own particular àṣẹ according to its nature, and those with the knowledge of how to work with àṣẹ in its many forms are able to produce effective change on various levels of existence through speech, art, ritual, medicine, etc.
  • Ara-human body, primarily, but not exclusively, the physical body. It houses and allows the other elements of a person to become manifest and operate dynamically in the world. The term—like ènìyàn—can also be used to stand in for “person”, and much like its constituent parts have metaphysical natures as well, it resists strict body/spirit dualism despite being more rooted in the physical than most other terms.
  • Ẹnìkejì-A person’s heavenly double akin to a guardian angel or spirit. Some differentiate it from the orí while others treat it as a merely another name for the same entity.
  • Ẹs`ẹ-“Foot/leg” in physical terms but also the effort/work done to make one’s orí/destiny realized on earth. Even the best orí will never be expressed without proper effort to carry it out well, making ẹsẹ an essential companion to orí.
  • Òrìṣà-Deity/intermediary between people and Olódùmarè, there is usually one who “owns a person’s head” and functions much like a patron saint. There is usually a strong resemblance between the devotees ideal or celestial character (ìwà) and that of the tutelary òrìṣà, and those who have refined their ìwà along these lines to the highest degree are often identified directly with the òrìṣà or called by the òrìṣà’s name.
  • Òjìjì-“Shadow.” Although conceptions vary depending on region and tradition, it is commonly understood as a type of “soul”, but one with an essential although far less active role in the sustenance of the self. Rituals are generally not performed for it, but some believe it travels through dreams while people are asleep. It can remain on earth and possibly even take material form after the death of the body (ara) but requires the continued presence of ẹmí in order to talk. Some say it merely marks the presence of ẹmí in ara.
  • Ọkàn-“Heart” or organ primarily responsible for a type of intuitive cogitation very similar to the English term “will”. Much like the physical function of pumping blood, it coordinates and motivates the various parts of the body, directing them towards a purpose and enduring in the face of resistance. Given this function it is closely associated with ẹmí and similar to ọpọlọ (literally “brain”) which is linked more closely with intelligence, the application of wisdom, or creativity.
  • Ènìyàn-“Person” refers to the totality of a human being, but in a moralistic and normative sense. A person of highly refined character may be called ènìyàn gidi (intensely/very much a person). As soon as any of the constituent parts of the person is absent or degraded to a great extent (such as ìwà or orí), one ceases to be alive in the physical but also moral sense as demonstrated by the phrase kìí ṣenìyàn (she/he/it is not a “person”) which is applied to anyone who does not meet the ethical/existential standards required to be a member of Yoruba society.


  • Body
  • Mind
  • Soul
  • Spirit
  • Personality
  • Destiny
  • Fate
  • Consciousness


by Ayodeji Ogunnaike

Conceptual Definition

Literally translates as “head” but carries a transcendent meaning akin to a person’s destiny/fate, though not in a fatalistic or deterministic sense. It constitutes the cosmic potential of each human being and their purposes for existence. There is both an orí òde (outer/physical/visible head) and an orí inú (inner/metaphysical/invisible head), but in philosophical discourse, the term orí refers to the orí inú. However, the physical parts of the body are not fully divorced from their metaphysical counterparts. Orí is also the most powerful spiritual force in a person’s life—a deity itself and more powerful than the many others—and success in all aspects of life is contingent upon a positive relationship with it and mediated through ritual. Knowledge of one’s orí is an important goal in Yoruba life and the deepest information on oneself. Orí can also be understood as a type of celestial spirit double or guardian angel not dissimilar to a Neoplatonic daimon.

Philosophical significance

The concept of orí provides a context in which to understand and debate issues such as free will and destiny or how cosmic order interacts with personal effort. It constitutes a field in which thinkers can adopt different perspectives, as some place more of an emphasis on the ability to alter or affect one’s orí through propitiation and action on earth, while others consider the choice of orí as more final and fixed. It also strongly suggests a celestial pre- or supra-temporal existence of each individual or the existence of a primordial archetype of what or who a person truly is or should aspire to become. The greater focus on orí inú over orí òde demonstrates the ontological priority of the inner, immaterial nature of a person over the external, although they are linked. The ritual processes and paraphernalia associated with orí demonstrate the practical and lived nature of this central aspect of Yoruba philosophy and religion.

Historical Context1

Before coming to earth from heaven, all people must go to the house of Àjàlá, the celestial potter, to select their orí. Àjàlá forms each orí out of clay, but he is an unreliable craftsman, so not all orí are created equal. Some are good and durable, while others are poorly crafted and will not serve their owners well, but it is very difficult to determine the nature of each orí. After selecting an orí, and crossing the boundary between heaven and earth, people forget the content of their orí and need to consult the òrìṣà Ọrúnmìlà (deity of wisdom and divination) to find out the nature of their orí and what it would have them do at important junctures. This is because Ọrúnmìlà witnesses each person’s selection of orí and can reveal the necessary information through his system of divination.

In a chapter (Odù) called “Ogbè-Yọnú” of the Ifá oral corpus (a vast body of myths, proverbs, and poems used in divination), one of Ọrúnmìlà’s sons named Afùwàpẹ is going to Àjàlá’s house with two friends before coming down to earth. His friends proceed directly to Àjàlá’s house, but he stops at his father’s house first to greet him and ask him to perform Ifa divination about his impending decision. Ọrúnmìlà tells Afùwàpẹ that he must make a sacrifice of salt and a great deal of money to ensure success. Afùwàpẹ does as his father instructed and carries the sacrifice along with him. Before reaching Àjàlá’s house, he encounters a gatekeeper who is seasoning his food with ash, and Afùwàpẹ recommends the man try some of his salt instead. The man is so happy with the taste of salt, he tells Afùwàpẹ that he will not find Àjàlá at home because his creditors are looking for him and he has gone into hiding. However, if he can get the creditors to leave, he could talk to Àjàlá and get help selecting a good orí. When Afùwàpẹ arrives at the house, he uses his large sum of money to pay off Àjàlá’s debt, and Àjàlá jumps down from the rafters as soon as the creditors are gone. He too is so pleased with Afùwàpẹ that he points out an excellent orí that will bring him success in life. When Afùwàpẹ comes down to earth, he prospers, but his two friends who had chosen their orí without Àjàlá’s help end up with bad ones. They struggle and struggle but cannot make much of themselves due to the bad choice they unknowingly made (Abimbola, 1975b, 178-207).

In another Odú Ifá called “Ògúndá-Méjì,” Ọrúnmìlà asks all the òrìṣà who can travel the farthest with their devotees. Each one, except for orí, admits that they would have to stop to eat their favorite foods and perform their rituals at their ancestral homes and cities. That orí is the only one who never needs to stop and will accompany a devotee to the ends of the world demonstrates its superior importance to the life of the individual.

In philosophical discourse, orí is often paired with ẹsẹ (leg/foot) as its compliment. While people would often carry heavy loads on their heads and a head/orí determines where the body will go, ẹsẹ are necessary to carry the person and anything they have acquired to the desired location. Thus, ẹsẹ represents the hard work necessary to bring the benefits of a good orí to pass. The deity Èṣù is commonly believed to be able to tempt people to leave the path of their orí, and good character (ìwàpẹlẹ) is closely associated with orí as well. It is also connected with ẹmí (breath), which is received from Olódùmarè (Almighty God) just before choosing an orí.

Significant References

Orí is likely the most common term used in literature on Yoruba philosophy and is analyzed by practically all scholars of Yoruba thought and cosmology (See Abimbola 1993, Gbadegesin 1994, Makinde 1984, Oduwole 1996, Balogun 2007). This literature often takes the form of analysis of Yoruba perspectives on destiny (such as soft-determinism or fatalism), but a great deal of insightful work has also been done in the realm of art and art history by scholars such as Abiodun (2014), Lawal (1985, 2001), and Ademuleya (2007) because the paraphernalia associated with the ritual propitiation of orí and their aesthetic attributes are both rich and deeply embedded in understandings of its philosophical significance.